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Going With the Flow

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

First, you need to understand what is getting you stuck.

Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.

For decades, I’ve been told to go with it, this elusive entity called the flow. Going with the flow sounds easy. But for me, it hasn’t been. One explanation is that I have a lot of self-control, sometimes too much. This is characteristic of an over-controlled personality type, which is also associated with positive traits such as working hard, planning ahead, and fixing problems. There are other factors that make going with the flow difficult, including not having enough self-confidence and making inaccurate assumptions. This post includes a deep dive into all these factors and what to do to make going with the flow easier.

“Go with the flow” is a phrase that can be traced back to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote about letting circumstances play out naturally rather than trying to impose a predetermined solution. From a modern-day psychological perspective, going with the flow is referred to as psychological flexibility. When people show psychological flexibility, they respond to what the present moment demands, without getting weighed down by self-consciousness, worries, or resentment. In this post, I use the terms going with the flow and psychological flexibility interchangeably.

Going with the flow is not to be confused with another psychological concept known as flow state, which is characterized by complete engagement in a task requiring skill and is typically associated with optimal performance. Flow state tends to occur when people pursue tasks that are neither too difficult (which would lead to frustration) or too easy (which would lead to boredom). One common feature of going with the flow and being in a flow state is confidence. People showing both qualities also tend to face challenges head on as opposed to avoiding them.

Who Is This Post for and What Is It About?

There are individual differences in psychological flexibility. Sticks-in-the-mud like me have been told to go with the flow so many times that the phrase can sound like a nag. Others appear to roll with situations effortlessly. This post is written for those who struggle with being flexible and might need to be reminded that: 1. There are, in fact, reasons to celebrate being less flexible, but at the same time, 2. You can become more flexible, if you want to do so.

Like other posts Mood Smoothie self-help blog, getting better at going with the flow requires identifying and understanding uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, practicing slowing down your body’s responses to emotionally charged situations, and aligning your responses to stressful situations with your values. It requires regularly practicing skills for keeping your emotions in a comfortable zone even when you are not in distress, while also learning which techniques work best for smoothing your mood during triggering situations.

The Perspective of Therapeutic Guidance

Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT) is a psychological intervention that includes strategies for increasing what practitioners refer to as Flexible Mind, a state of mind characterized by being open to changing plans when the situation calls for it, while not altogether abandoning or avoiding challenging situations. The first step is to increase your awareness of 2 kinds of inflexible states: Fixed Mind and Fatalistic Mind.

The inflexible state of Fixed Mind operates on the assumption that change is not necessary because you are sure that you are right. While people operating in Fixed Mind might act confident and powerful, they are likely experiencing frustration, feelings of tightness in the body, and an urge to defend their convictions. An example that comes to mind is a scene from the 1996 film Matilda in which a father (played by Danny DeVito) responds to his young daughter (played by Mara Wilson), when she challenges the ethics of his business. He insists, “I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re little. I’m right, you’re wrong.” While the father sounds certain of his views, there is an underlying insecurity that contributes to his forceful retort.

The other inflexible state, Fatalistic Mind, also operates on the assumption that change is not necessary, but this time it is because change is perceived to be impossible. People who are in a fatalistic state of mind tend to throw in the towel and try to run away from their problems. They might feel numb or like they are shutting down.

Identifying an inflexible mind state is only the first step in understanding what is making it difficult to go with the flow. You next need to increase your motivation for behaving more flexibly. On the surface, this might seem as easy as thinking, “Well I don’t want people to think I’m difficult, so I should go with the flow.” However, motivation is more complex than knowing how we “should” be acting – that’s why we seldom follow through with New Year’s Resolutions.

Motivating Yourself to Go with the Flow

First, you want to consider the benefits of going with the flow, while also accepting that going with the flow might not feel right or even possible. For example, if I think we should pack snacks for a trip, but my family is rushed to get out the door, I might not feel good about dropping my plan because I assume that my children are likely to get hungry on the road. In such an instance, I might need to accept imperfection in order to be more flexible.

One way to approach this conundrum is to consider how your decision will affect the other people you are with, and how important your relationships are with those people. Take, for instance, going against a group’s preference to eat at a pizzeria. If the reason you are going against the flow is that you have an allergy to milk products, your lack of flexibility will benefit the group, as nobody will be happy if you end up getting sick. In the example above about packing snacks for a trip, being late might affect the mood of the group more than being hungry, and the kids might enjoy a treat from a roadside venue.

I Want to Go with the Flow, but Why Is It So Hard?

It is important to acknowledge that it is hard to go with the flow. It will help to think about where your inflexibility comes from. Four typical factors to consider include biology, early learning experiences, underlying beliefs, and processing differences.

1. Biology

Differences in the way we are wired emerge early in life, as manifested by young children’s various temperaments (e.g., calm, fussy, high energy, etc.). This suggests that the way we present ourselves to the world is at least in part rooted in genetics.

Additionally, research highlights the impact of the nervous system on emotions and behavior, and there is also evidence that novel experiences impact people’s nervous systems in different ways. For example, an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity is universally associated with increased heart rate and breathing. However, while the daredevils among us will respond to these physiological changes with excitement and urges to pursue high-risk activities, in contrast, anxious and sensitive individuals will respond by avoiding unfamiliar situations, particularly ones that are unpredictable and chaotic in nature, like a crowded amusement park.

2. Early Learning Experiences

We start learning pretty much from the time we are born, and the temperamental differences highlighted above influence how we learn. For example, a parent responds to her fussy child (temperament) by holding her, in response to which the child is soothed. The child learns that the way to get attention from her parent is to cry. The parent learns that holding her child is a good way to get her to stop crying.

So what does this have to do with going with the flow? It may be the case that inflexible behaviors are unintentionally reinforced early in at least two potential ways, the first being that parents want to please their child and give in when they insist on things going a certain way. Another way is parents attempting to calm their child’s fears by allowing them to avoid a novel experience. However, avoiding unfamiliar situations inadvertently leads to these fears growing stronger.

Finally, if your parents had trouble going with the flow themselves, you might have learned to model inflexible behaviors. These behaviors often become ingrained early in life, which explains why it persists far past the tender age that is the most impressionable to parental influence.

3. Underlying beliefs

Early learning experiences might also lead to acquiring unhealthy beliefs that follow you into later life. An example is the belief that you must be viewed as superior in order to be considered a worthy human being. This belief renders people more vulnerable both to insisting on being right and to falling apart when they make a mistake.

Unhealthy beliefs about others also lend themselves to inflexible behaviors. If you believe that others are out to get you, digging your heels in becomes a matter of protecting yourself. Ironically, when you have trouble going with the flow, you are more likely to be viewed as emotionally inferior. To add insult to injury, emotional intelligence, associated with understanding others’ emotions in addition to being able to manage your own emotions, has been shown to be more important to life success and interpersonal relationships.

4. Processing Differences

Some people process information more slowly than others. This isn’t an indictment of their intelligence—some of our greatest thinkers were slow, deep thinkers. The relationship between processing differences and trouble going with the flow might be implicated in the tendency for neurodivergent individuals, such as those with ASD and ADHD, are more likely to have trouble transitioning among tasks and changing up their routines. Neurodivergent individuals are also prone to slower processing of information even when other cognitive skills, such as verbal and visual abilities, are well-developed. Some people have slower processing without having psychiatric or neurodevelopmental issues.

As a slow processor myself, I can relate to the confusion and accompanying anxiety that might arise in situations that are unexpected and appear (at least from my perspective) chaotic. In such situations, sticking to what is familiar is easier than deviating from the plan, even if, from an objective point of view, deviating would make my life considerably easier. A classic example would be sticking to a familiar route that has heavy traffic one day and being resistant to trying to navigate an alternate route.

Now What?

If you tend to be psychologically inflexible, you might experience regret, shame, and helplessness about it. It is important to remind yourself that these emotions only make it harder to go with the flow. A healthier way to think about psychological flexibility is like a group of muscles to be strengthened gradually and with consistent practice. Just like you can get back on track again with a fitness routine, psychological flexibility is amenable to change – that is, it is flexible! Therefore, there is hope for building it up.

Compassion for Yourself

RO-DBT practitioners recommend cultivating self-compassion in response to recognizing that you are operating from an inflexible mind state. This is important for resisting the urge to immediately fix psychological inflexibility, as opposed to first sitting with the discomfort of knowing that change is necessary. Rushing to a solution, after all, will likely only strengthen inflexibility.

You can cultivate compassion for yourself by reminding yourself there are benefits to not going with the flow, including the ability to follow life-saving rules and to prevent the downfalls that can come with mindlessly following the crowd. In fact, it can be argued that going with the flow too much might lead to another form of psychological inflexibility, such as trouble asserting your values.

Compassion for Others

Compassion for others requires two skills:

1. Accepting that you cannot possibly know everything about how another person is perceiving a situation. There is a possibility that someone is acting a certain way due to a factor that has nothing to do with you. Accepting this possibility will help soften inflexibility. If you have difficulty accepting this possibility, you might have to move on to Step 2.

2. Imagining the world through another’s eyes via perspective taking is trying to see the situation through the other person’s perspective. Perhaps they insisted on going to the beach because they did not think they would have another opportunity to see the ocean for the rest of the summer. Perhaps they don’t realize that you are allergic to the sun.

If Step 2 also does not sit well with you, accept that you are having trouble understanding their perspective, and keep moving.

By keep moving, I mean try to stay curious, moving with what others are doing while coming up with questions that might help you better understand the situation. Calmly ask others these questions or keep them to yourself. If the questions are not answered, continue coming up with more questions that might help you get closer to understanding what you might not know about others or what their perspectives might be like.

The Psychological Flexibility Workout

Practicing the following skills can help you build psychological flexibility:

1. Be OK With Doing Things The Easy Way: Have you ever had ambitious fitness goals, only to feel impatient when an expert showed you simple moves and told you to do them repetitively? You might have thought, “I will never get anywhere doing something so simple!” At the same time, consistent, small steps are necessary for sustainable change.

Think of your psychological flexibility workout in a similar way. Slow down, start with small, simple steps, and don’t expect any one of these steps alone to lead to immediate change.

Also, remember that cultivating a preference for what is easy will help you become more flexible! Unless your health, safety, or well-being are in danger, or people are acting in a way that strongly goes against your values, it is generally easier to go with the flow.

2. Take Control Over Your Lack of Control: Tell yourself, “I am having trouble going with the flow. At the same time, I am capable of choosing to go with the flow.” To create your own positive mantras, check out the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire, a measure by Steven Hayes Ph.D. that assesses psychological inflexibility. Re-frame the items into phrases that will boost your confidence in being able to go with the flow. For instance, you can rephrase the item that reads, “Emotions cause problems in my life,” by instead telling yourself,“Emotions are bumps in the road. I am capable of slowing down and riding them out without pulling over or blaming others.”

3. Address Processing Differences: Processing differences are complicated as they can be impacted by anxiety, distractability, and bodily discomforts like hunger or fatigue. They can be due to difficulty with a skill, such as trouble with short term memory. You might consider the following suggestions:

A. Give Yourself Enough Time to Process. Try to delay reactions even if it is only by minutes. If possible, ask if you could think about it.

B. Do Exercises to Increase Flexible Thinking. One of the toolkits on this website talks about fun ways to help kids think more flexibly, such as trying to list all the different ways to eat a cupcake. Such exercises, especially when practiced in the context of coming up with different solutions to challenging social situations, can help you get in the mode of going with the flow.

C. Learn Compensatory Skills. These might include researching novel events in advance, such as learning more about an amusement park you are visiting for the first time, and writing down reminders. Also, as mentioned above, asking questions helps build a knack for curiosity, which will help you be more open to novel experiences.

It is best to think of your goal to go with the flow as a journey rather than a destination. When problems come up, reflect on how you thought and acted in response to them, and continue to approach this topic with openness and curiosity. You will benefit from being flexible with your practice of psychological flexibility!

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